Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series of commentaries on Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month.
There’s no point in being Irish unless you know the world will break your heart someday. So the saying goes. But reading up for a speech for Black History Month, I forgot that. I got sucked in by the stuff that’s easy to love.
I started out re-reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which pulled me into the Children’s Crusade. Then I got sidetracked by all the other stuff Martin Luther King Jr. did in his short time on the national stage – just 11 years. Much of that time he spent lifting his people’s spirits, assuring them “We’ll get there.” But he was a brooder. He, too, had to fear the world would break his heart. What lifted him up?
His faith in God, of course. And the history of Africans in America. I like to think as he sat brooding in that Birmingham jail or a Montgomery motel or somewhere in Selma, he worked through a kind of rosary, each bead a remarkable piece of his heritage:
- Phyllis Wheatley, swept out of West Africa when she was still losing her baby teeth, made a slave during our Colonial era, but soon writing poetry that put her in the pantheon of American writers.
- Benjamin Banneker, a free Colonial genius whose almanacs were commercially successful and who urged Thomas Jefferson to address slavery while the nation was still young.
- Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who led movements for abolition and woman’s suffrage, using the language of those who enslaved him to make a compelling argument that subjugation dehumanizes not only the subjugated, but the subjugator.
- Harriet Tubman. Rendered narcoleptic as a child hit by a brick thrown at an escaping slave, she later led over 300 slaves to freedom and conducted espionage for the Union so effectively she was regarded as the Union’s “secret weapon.”
- Robert Smalls, a slave who stole a Confederate vessel and piloted his family to Union lines before turning around and recruiting other slaves to fight the Confederacy. After the war, he bought the plantation where he was born and took in his original owners, caring for his former mistress until her death.
- Ida Bell Wells, a slave freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, incensed when a local store owner and his clerk were lynched for making a white boy give back the marbles a black child had won from him outside the store. Ida wrote about that lynching and, after her newspaper office was burned to the ground, went on to document the other “strange fruit” hanging on trees throughout the Jim Crow South.
- Mamie Till, who apparently didn’t give her 14-year-old son, raised in Chicago, a good enough “talk” before he visited relatives in the Deep South in 1955. On a pretext confessed to be a lie some 40 years later, Emmett was forced to carry a cotton gin fan to the Tallahatchie River, where he was stripped, beaten, shot, and thrown into the river with one eye gouged out and the 75-pound fan barb-wired to his body. Barely 14. Even in her grief, Mamie knew that this savagery must be exposed. She opened Emmett’s coffin for public viewing and shook awake the slumbering American conscience.
Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, Fred Shuttlesworth … I could go on an on. More than enough beads for a rosary. In the Catholic tradition of themed prayer, this one would be called “the indomitable mysteries.” Time and time again, mired in hopeless poverty, facing insurmountable odds, crushed by centuries of enslavement and decades more of cruelties too numerous to count, the spark of genius blazes a trail, the fire of courage drives back injustice, the light in one set of eyes, one pen, one voice preaching a dream helps the world see.
Good stuff. Then my aching Irish acts up. Nine months after King’s assassination, Richard Nixon became president. As his right-hand man John Erlichman later acknowledged, the 1968 election convinced them they needed to undermine two potent “enemies”: hippies and blacks. The war on drugs was born.
Being tough on crime became the litmus test for every presidential candidate for the rest of the 20th century. The results snowballed from Nixon’s stiff penalties for minor drug infractions to Reagan-era mandatory minimum sentencing, Bush I’s Willie Horton fear-mongering, and Clinton’s “three strikes” fiasco. Over time, the land of the free became the world’s No. 1 home of the incarcerated … No. 1 by far.
When Nixon formed the snowball, 357,392 Americans were incarcerated. By 2014, our incarcerated population numbered 2,306,200 – disproportionately black. Though less than 14 percent of our population, blacks represent 34 percent of our prisoners. They’re imprisoned at a rate five times that of whites. Black children represent 32 percent of arrested children, 42 percent of detained children, and 52 percent of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.
Compared to whites charged with the same crimes and with similar criminal histories, as “Serial” podcaster Sarah Koenig noted, blacks are arrested more often, charged more harshly, given higher bails, offered worse plea deals, and given longer prison sentences.
If you do nothing else before this month ends, listen to the third season of “Serial.” It follows the day-to-day proceedings in Cleveland’s county courthouse. You’ll find yourself reciting a different rosary, one themed “the powerless mysteries.” Each bead has the story of a Tamir or Emirius or Davon, but this time, there are too many beads to name, too many to string, and the string itself is hopelessly snarled with inefficiency, discrimination, abuse, apathy, and overwork.
You’ll watch all these beads running through your fingers and spilling to the floor and bouncing back up again in a maddening loop and realize they aren’t the smooth wooden beads of a rosary but hard, dry raisins left in the sun of that dream deferred too long, and the only prayer your lips can utter will be, “Lord, help us all.” Yes, all … because black or white, free or incarcerated, urban or rural, we are all, as a brooder once reminded us, inextricably interwoven in a single garment of destiny.
Sadly, a newcomer to this country could only conclude that our nod to black heritage this month is the castigation of some Southern governor for a Halloween outfit he wore 35 years ago. I have a hard time getting worked up about that. Possibly, a lifetime of watching males of various ages stuff grapefruits up their T-shirts; don a skirt, lipstick and a wig; and flit air-headedly across our shared space has inured me to the cruelties of entitled cluelessness.
But with mass incarceration of black Americans bankrupting our country literally, legally, socially, and morally, a Halloween costume is what enrages us? The sine qua non of who we are – “liberty and justice for all” – is dying of chronic malnourishment, and our solution is to go trick-or-treating? I know, I know … so easy to get sucked in. Be still, my Irish heart.
Mary Sheehy Moe writes from Great Falls. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org